The lights are on
Going back to the tiny, limited world of a 64-player Battlefield match is tough after living through one of Planetside 2’s hour-plus base assaults. The latest free-to-play massively multiplayer offering from Sony Online Entertainment is a pure shooter, with no NPCs and few emplaced defenses to get in the way of player-versus-player action. Planetside 2 doesn’t pretend to do anything else, but this is a triumph of online first-person shooter combat once you get over the significant learning curve.
[Editor's Note: Game Informer does not assign traditional review scores to MMOs given their constantly updating and changing nature. This column examines the game with a critical eye, and takes the place of a standard review.]
Don’t be scared off by the “massively multiplayer” label. Planetside 2 is just as polished and battle-ready as any triple-A shooter. Network issues – like lag and players warping around – are almost entirely absent, even with hundreds of players fighting over the same objectives. Draw distance goes out to the horizon, though you generally don’t have much luck shooting that far thanks to projectile velocity and drop. In all respects, Planetside 2 is a modern sci-fi competitive shooter, only bigger. Much bigger.
Individual battles are fast and vicious. Despite their futuristic armor and shields, players are anything but bullet sponges. Even a heavy assault trooper with his class-specific super-shield drops with a single accurately fired clip, and melts as quickly as anyone else if he sticks is neck out in front of a massed enemy force. Accuracy is everything and mobility is limited, and so players’ individual aiming skills determine the outcomes of small firefights more than any other factor except the element of surprise.
Planetside 2’s shocking lethality makes being in the right place at the right time the most important skill you can develop. Flanking an entrenched enemy position without being seen can bag you a raft of easy kills. Waiting for enemies to come through a likely teleporter or up through a levitation pad is extremely rewarding. And, of course, finding a good sniping perch and picking off infantry is a timeless classic.
Learning how battles tend to flow in any given base layout or overland topography involves a lot of dying and all the frustration that comes along with it. The dense sea of icons that clogs your minimap takes hours to understand, much less read at a glance in mid-battle. Groping your way around weapon types and the progression system is a moderate pain in the neck, but gaining true understanding of the salient points of each facility type is a hell of a task. Large bases in particular are so vertically complex that the flat map system borders on useless, especially with teleporters and impassable energy shields in the mix.
Because death comes so quickly, the most contested spots are tied to the respawn system. The Sunderer personnel transport can deploy into a forward spawn point, allowing downed soldiers to get back to the fighting much faster. Ensuring that your team has appropriate Sunderer placement (and denying it to your opponents) is the rock on which nearly all other strategies are built. Capturing control points isn’t what really flips control of Planetside’s massive facilities – destroying the central spawning unit takes the fight right out of an enemy army.
Better With FriendsPlanetside 2 is fun when you’re playing with random strangers; the progression system mostly encourages players to contribute to the overall team effort. The game doesn’t come near to fulfilling its potential until you’re playing with a group of friends, though, coordinating your loadouts and taking on whatever missions you assign yourselves. The in-game voice chat is sadly inadequate, though, so make sure the clan you sign on with runs their own voice server. Similarly, the built-in social tools are so bare-bones as to be nonexistent. Players looking for a group to join will have much better luck surfing fan forums to find an outfit that matches their playstyle than trying to blindly make friends in-game.
Frontlines develop naturally over the excellent maps. A simple ridge can provide enough cover to make it easy to defend, and overrunning an enemy position like that carries a thrill almost equal to capturing an actual node. Doorways within an enemy force’s field of fire are deathtraps, and breaking out of a well-defended one after minutes of being shelled with a nonstop barrage of heavy ordnance is a momentous occasion. Every single battle features dozens of these moments among the larger swell and fade of the overall engagement.
A skilled group of 10-20 players can quickly turn the tide of a battle between hundreds by influencing those moments – disabling a generator to drop a base’s defensive shields, taking out a crucial Sunderer, or just wiping out an entrenched enemy position to allow the frontline to move forward. The capability for a smaller force to accomplish remarkable feats is a necessity for any large-scale shooter, and it’s definitely present here.
Each class has a distinct role. The interplay between frontline heavy assaults, skirmishing light assaults, versatile infiltrators, resupplying and repairing engineers, and the always-crucial medics has a noticeable impact on the flow of battle, even though every player has the basic capability to gun down enemies with powerful firearms. Some class-based shooters relegate their classes’ unique abilities to minor roles, but in Planetside 2 they’re all critical in every phase of battle. Good luck harassing an armored column without an engineer to resupply your rockets, or sustaining any deep strike without medics to resurrect the fallen, for example.
Vehicles fill similarly important niches. Main battle tanks are heavily armored engines of destruction that demand an answer from the enemy before they tear entire armies to bits. The Galaxy dropship enables all kinds of advanced tactics for coordinated squads, and can be outfitted as a decently capable AC-130 analogue as well. A variety of smaller war machines fit into smaller roles, like swift individual transport and nimble harassment. While ground vehicles control naturally, piloting aircraft with a mouse and keyboard is unbearable – plug in an Xbox 360 controller for a much superior experience.
Though stand-up fights place a premium on player skill, having a good time in a support role is possible. Experience points rain down on engineers who repair vehicles and hand out ammo, medics who heal and resurrect the wounded, Sunderer drivers who deploy an active forward spawn, and anyone who spots enemy positions to their team. You don’t have to be anything approaching a tourney champion to contribute to and enjoy Planetside 2.
I’ve found equal parts fun and frustration on both sides of the infantry/vehicle equation, which usually indicates a good balance. The lengthy beta ironed out most of the borderline exploits that inevitably arise from players combining such a wide variety of capabilities in unexpected ways. Tanks happily one-shot soldiers with their main cannons, but being a big slow target when there are literally hundreds of enemies in firing range is a hell of a disadvantage. Skilled pilots can pull off amazing feats of carnage in their aircraft, but a few dedicated anti-aircraft soldiers can limit the damage quite effectively.
Planetside 2’s progression system is almost entirely based around certifications, which come with kills and assists, completing objectives, performing support actions, and with a baseline bonus trickle over time. The power they grant is significant. The ability to deploy a Sunderer as a forward spawn point, for example, must be unlocked by spending 50 certs. Want a scope for your gun? 30 certs (each, sold separately per weapon). Forward grips and laser sights are 100 certs apiece. Extra grenade capacity: 50 certs. Flat health and armor increases for each class, as well as ability boosts like more jetpack time for a light assault trooper, are hugely important and come with a serious investment of certs for each – 500 for the max level. Vehicles follow a similar pattern. Don’t feel bad when you get pasted over and over by players with far more playtime than you; they’re not just more experienced, but noticeably more powerful than you are.
To Sony Online’s credit, the items for sale in the cash shop largely steer clear of the kind of power increases certs grant. The primary draw for spending real money in Planetside 2 is to unlock additional weapons. Almost all weapons are sidegrades, like a rifle with a slower reload but a larger clip. Unlocking each varies between $2.50 and $7, or you could grind out between 200 and 1,000 cert points to do the same. Cash can also buy temporary XP or resource rate gain boosts and cosmetic items. Anyone who gets into the game will likely want to drop a few bucks here and there, but that seems like a reasonable price for the quality and quantity of entertainment Planetside 2 has to offer.
Planetside 2 is an excellent game that happens to be free to play, not a free-to-play game worth maybe taking a look at. As painful as the learning curve can be, and as frustrating as it is to die over and over to players you never even saw, the experience is incredible and unique once the structure of the game clicks into place. Like any multiplayer game, it’s better with friends. The built-in social features leave much to be desired, but that’s true of every online shooter today. I heartily recommend Planetside 2 to anyone, even players who don’t usually spend a lot of time in online shooters. You might be surprised just how compelling an eternal, player-driven war over a persistent world can be.